John 1:5 'The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot get a handle on it.'
I’ve mentioned the double meanings (and even multiple meanings) in certain Greek words, which are very difficult to translate. Every now and then, as a translator, you get lucky and can find an English word or phrase with a double meaning that more or less matches up with the double meaning in the Greek. I think we’ve got an example of that here and I don’t know why more translations haven’t taken advantage of it. To ‘grasp something’ or to ‘get a handle on it’ has the idea both of understanding something, and laying hold of it so that you can be in control of it. (There is an older alternative: two translations I know of follow the old Authorised version with the word ‘apprehend’ but I decided against using it; it’s not a word in common use now, particularly not as a word used to mean understanding something).
The two meanings dovetail nicely. You cannot get any kind of control in relation to something if you have no appreciation or understanding of it but when you are able to grasp it, then that brings you some kind of proper control in the use of it; you can’t do one without the other. That is the nub of the issue that John is alluding to here. The powers of darkness hate the power of light and goodness and, when any hatred is ungodly, there often goes along with it a fear that is to do with feeling threatened and undermined by the thing that you hate; this makes you want to control it so you can subvert it or destroy it. If the person or thing that you hate is not firmly held in goodness you may indeed succeed in this but, when met with unquenched goodness, the forces of darkness just cannot get a handle on it. Every time they look like they have laid hold of something truly good to bring harm to, even if on one level they may appear to have succeeded, on another level it seems to slip through their fingers like water. The ultimate example of this is what happened to Christ on the cross.
How then are we to think of the spiritual forces of evil at work in the heavenly places. Should we be afraid of them? When it comes to understanding human weakness and how to appeal to it and exploit it, Satan and the powers of evil are portrayed as being supremely cunning; this is an area that they understand extremely well so we should have a healthy fear of them in this regard. However, when Satan is met with genuine goodness still operating under duress, he is like someone lost in the mist. C S Lewis brings this out well in the ‘Screwtape letters’; he makes us see both the supreme cleverness and the ultimate blindness and stupidity of evil at work.
One reason that spiritual darkness cannot grasp real love and goodness is that it refuses to accept the reality of it. Once we accept the reality of it, we are faced with the difficulty of coming to terms with the challenge it presents to us as people for whom sin comes so naturally and real goodness sometimes seems next to impossible. However, if you can be completely cynical and say that the whole thing is a sham, then that gets rid of this problem! This is the role that Satan plays in the story of Job. He is portrayed as the ultimate cynic. God says to Satan, look at my servant Job, he’s a true example of righteousness, you won’t get better than him. Satan says to God, ‘that’s all humbug! –Job only loves you because you’ve given him such a good time of it. You’ve cosseted him and featherbedded him; but give him a hard time of it and you’ll soon see what he really is’. God says, ‘all right, we’ll do that. I’ll let you get your hands on him for a bit, and then we’ll see’. God is, in effect, putting Job to the test because Satan is, by implication, challenging God about whether righteousness really exists. The story continues as Satan is allowed to get his hands on Job - but the question is, does Job pass the test?
At first, it all is looking good for Job - or should I say that things are going very badly for Job, but he’s shining through despite it all. ‘The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord!’ Things get much worse for Job and then comes the final coup de gras. What happens when you’ve experienced a series of disasters completely outside your control and you think it can’t get any worse? There’s only one place lower to go after that - you get a bunch of people who come along and think that they are helping you but, without being asked, they start lecturing you. When people lecture in that way they are inclined to be deeply insensitive and highly presumptuous. That’s when Job starts to crack. His ‘comforters’ start lecturing him and he starts ranting back at them, they start to get angry with him and soon they are preaching at him with a vengeance! He rants back at them even more and complains angrily to God about his situation. Of course we, the readers, know why all this is happening to Job but he doesn’t. In a sense, it would have spoiled the test if he had known.
Here is the real challenge for me, as some one with a temperament that likes to work things out in his head. Getting a grasp on something isn’t necessarily about having the logical explanation, it’s more to do with grasping something deep in your introvert. What Job says to God (angrily) is, ‘I don’t understand why this is happening to me, I just don’t understand it!’ He is given no explanation in response. God’s response to all his ranting and their preaching is equivalent to throwing a large bucket of cold water over them all to shut them up and then, when Job is shocked into silence, God says to him in effect, ‘that’s right, Job, you don’t understand’. What God is saying is, ‘I’m not expecting you to be able to understand at this moment why this is happening to you; I’m just asking you to trust me. What I am asking you to grasp is, I know a lot more about everything than you do; can you rest in this so that you can trust me more about the things that you don’t understand?’ On an extrovert level Job is given no explanation, rather he is given something to get hold of deep in his introvert and, to his credit, he does. When he has done that, he can say at that point ‘At the moment I don’t know, but I know that God knows’. That takes us to the deepest heart of loving trust. It is when we have this as an attitude of heart that we can in time be given understanding.
Job’s suffering is a model for the suffering of Christ. Job is put to the test and passes it, albeit very imperfectly. Jesus is put to the test and passes it with complete maturity. We could say that Job represents those of us who are counted as righteous in our very imperfect faith because we are held to be one with Jesus in his perfect faith.
I don’t know if Jesus was a Choleric like me but, if he was, he could have given an explanation using his Choleric as to why he had to go to the cross. Indeed, whatever his temperaments were, up to a point he does explain to his disciples why he was going to the cross. He knew they wouldn’t understand much about his explanations at the time, but he wanted them to have some realisation that he knew what was going on even if they didn’t. This would give them something to hang on to in their bewilderment when Jesus was crucified. Having said this, at the height of his torment on the cross all that was stripped away from him. It is at the extremity of experience that our extrovert may be blown away in the hurricane along with all the explanations that the extrovert can come up with and what we are left with is pure introvert. Even as a man of true wisdom, he is brought to the same point as Job in not being able to explain what was happening to him. What Jesus says in his heart to God his Father when stripped to the core of his being on the cross is, ‘I do not know, but I know that you know’. When the powers of darkness see that kind of faith under duress they have nowhere to turn. What they thought they had has slipped away from their grasp because it has shown that it belongs with God. Whereas Job had to be brought kicking and screaming to that point, Jesus was brought to it without any of that.
If Satan sees us ranting and protesting under duress like Job, no doubt as chief prosecutor he would like to be able to say, ‘I told you so!’ but, even in his ranting, Job never gives up on God, which is what Satan said he would do. When, like Job, we hold on in faith, God is able to bring us through that to a point of peace in our faith. God’s response to Satan is, ‘hand’s off! This one is mine.’